Why Patriotism and Conservatism have become Synonymous in Contemporary Politics
I am going to deviate from my usual analysis of political issues in the news, and instead discuss a broader issue that has bothered me for years. The problem is abstract and difficult to summarize, so I will begin by posing a question that I often ask myself.
What does it mean to be patriotic in America? Is it an adherence to the principles conceived by our Founding Fathers in the drafting of the Constitution? Is it the propagation of freedom and equality to every corner of the world? Does it include the privilege to be contrarian in expressing one’s views without fear of being vilified?
These concepts may once have been almost universally regarded as being elements of patriotism, but this appears to no longer be the case. They have instead been marginalized by petty novelty gestures. The contemporary definition of patriotism for many people places greater importance on flying a flag than volunteering in a soup kitchen. It requires citizens to adopt a jingoistic mindset and repudiate the idea that any other nation could be on par with their own.
It has become a word used to attack a person’s political affiliation. I have been called unpatriotic for objecting to the war in Iraq, where some individuals have asserted that my opposition to the war is an act of disloyalty to our soldiers. I have been called unpatriotic for believing in legislated constraints on business practices, where objectors have asserted that unbridled capitalism is the only way to truly be free in America. I have been called unpatriotic for suggesting that this nation was not founded on religion, but rather freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
I will put it bluntly. While almost all Americans consider themselves to be patriotic and place great value on their love of country, in the eyes of many conservatives, only people who think as they do deserve to be called patriots. This sad truth is evidenced by recent events.
But he’s just too liberal to be an American
President Barack Obama has come under fire on numerous occasions for not being patriotic enough. Fox News pundits rejoiced when video surfaced of Obama not holding his hand to his heart during the national anthem, claiming it as evidence that he is secretly anti-American.
During the presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain ripped Obama for not wearing an American flag pin on his lapel. Obama asserted that his rationale for not wearing the pin was that it had become a substitute for “true patriotism.”
“I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” said Obama. “Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism.”
His campaign later issued this statement: “We all revere the flag, but Senator Obama believes that being a patriot is about more than a symbol. It’s about fighting for our veterans when they get home and speaking honestly with the American people about this disastrous war.”
When military service just doesn’t cut it
In Obama’s case, the consequences of the attacks were not especially devastating (although they did augment the outlandish claims that he’s an undercover Muslim extremist and foreigner).
However, the outcome for Sen. John Kerry during his 2004 presidential run was a bit more significant when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) launched a television attack ad that questioned Kerry’s service record during Vietnam. The group claimed he was undeserving of his Purple Hearts, Bronze Star and Silver Star medals. They also attacked his post-war record and accused him of being unpatriotic for protesting the war after his time in the service had ended.
The group’s advertisement was actually created by Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, a company that creates ads for Republican political candidates. Investigations into Kerry’s records proved that the claims made by the SBVT were totally unfounded, but enough damage was done to ensure that Kerry could not win the presidency.
The SBVT questioning Kerry’s patriotism likely cost him the presidency. When Sen. C. Saxby Chambliss questioned Sen. Max Cleland’s patriotism, it nearly cost the man his life.
It’s a bit tougher to claim that this guy didn’t earn his Purple Heart
Sen. Cleland of Georgia, like Kerry, had received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star awards for his courage during the Vietnam War. Cleland lost both legs and an arm when a grenade exploded by his feet.
Cleland entered politics in 1971 when he won election to the Georgia State Senate. In 1996, Cleland won a U.S. Senate seat, and remained in that position until he was defeated for re-election in 2002. He was beaten by Saxby Chambliss, who ran a controversial attack ad that featured Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and questioned Cleland’s record on issues regarding the war. The ad implied that Cleland, the Vietnam War vet and triple amputee, was not concerned for America’s safety.
Cleland lost the election, and was driven into a deep depression. His fiancée left him, and he became a patient once again at Walter Reed Hospital. There, he “cried uncontrollably for 2 ½ years,” bewildered by the fact that his service to his country had been belittled and his patriotism impugned. Once he recovered, Cleland published a book entitled “Heart of a Patriot: How I found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove.”
“Give me liberty, or give me patriotism,” because apparently I can’t have both
Thomas Jefferson said that “Patriotism is not a short frenzied burst of emotion, but the long and steady dedication of a lifetime.” America was not built on sparkling fire-crackers, homemade apple pie and magnetic “support our troops” bumper sticker ribbons. It was built on the backs of patriots who stood up for their beliefs without admonishing others for theirs; patriots who believed in dying for their country, not just dying for a flag.